More Than A Political Statement
Iím sure to get into
trouble for this one, but thatís what I do. Causing reaction and
prompting debate is a healthy exercise, which keeps the mind and the
democracy fit. Itís alright to disagree. Itís what differentiates us
from regimes like the one with which we were just at war.
That glorious First
Amendment ó which provides us with the freedom of speech ó is as
precious a part of the democratic process as the right to vote itself.
It must be defended at all costs. Freedom of expression must be placed
above the content of the expression. So even when one utters the most
vile and ugly things, we must defend their right to utter away.
I hope my friends in the
City Council understand and appreciate that.
More importantly, I hope my
readers give some long, hard thought to my position which seems to be a
minority one and is likely to be unpopular.
In April, the New York City
Council passed, without a single vote of dissent, a resolution
introduced by Queens Councilman Tony Avella urging Visa, MasterCard,
Discover and AmEx to refrain from advertising on the website of and
doing business with the National Alliance.
The National Alliance is
accurately described by Avella as ďa neo-Nazi group.Ē Their website
and the materials they offer for sale appeal to the basest of instincts.
They promote racism and hatred. They are white supremacists and preach
hate towards those who are different from them. Blacks, Latinos and Jews
are often the targets of their vitriol.
The National Alliance has a
right to exist. I donít believe in anything they do, but I do believe
in their right to speak, express, have a web site and sell their vile
books and crap. Part of the right to speak includes the ability to
disseminate information ó no matter how ugly. That ability is
dependent upon e-commerce, the web and charge cards.
The City Council is a potent
force in this, the greatest City in the world. They approve contracts
and the budget and influence or control many business decisions. Master,
Visa and company do business with the City and endless business with
those dependent upon the City.
For the Council to even
subtly express displeasure at a business or, perhaps without intending
to, suggest that City business decisions may be influenced by adherence
to its resolutions, raises serious First Amendment issues.
Granted, a Council
resolution approving or disapproving a political belief has no weight.
President Bush went to war shortly after the Council voted to oppose it.
The President does not need the Council. The Councilís endless
resolutions have no bearing on City policy, but have been the source of
great divisiveness within the Council. The issue of race has been more
destructive within the Council than within the City itself.
However, the Council members
continue to play with political resolutions while our City faces fiscal
and educational crisis.
And sadly, the very liberal
Council is so quick with its knee-jerk liberalism that not a single
member saw fit to raise the question as to whether the Avella resolution
calling upon MasterCard, Visa and the others to stop doing business with
the National Alliance might just flirt with infringing on the National
Allianceís right to express itself, as well as Master and Visaís
right to express their corporate self ó although that isnít really
the issue here.
The dollars controlled by
our government can make or break a business. Public funds should not be
used to regulate free speech. Implicit or explicit approval of a
corporate political stance is inappropriate, especially when it comes to
infringing on First Amendment rights.
Each Council member could
stand up and shout their disdain for the National Alliance. The Council
could condemn the group, although thatís not really what the
Councilís job is. But to try to prevent a group from disseminating
their views or selling their books is more dangerous than the words of
the hateful group.
I donít expect the Council
to agree with me. However, a number of members with whom Iíve spoken
did agree that the Council should have considered the First Amendment
issues that I raise.
Speaker Giff Miller rejected
my position and told me I was trying to limit the Councilís freedom of
speech. Nice try, Giff.
Leroy Comrie agreed that had
the First Amendment impact of the resolution been raised, it might have
changed his vote and possibly the entire outcome.
Tony Avella clearly
understood my position and agreed to disagree with me.
I believe that the
Councilís desire to express its political beliefs has reached a
My in-laws survived the
Holocaust. My Jewish heritage seems more important as Moslem fanatics
use terrorism in an attempt to drive the Jewish homeland into the sea.
More than ever before, I know that those who express hate must be
However, rejecting hate is
not stifling speech. When we infringe upon othersí right to speak, we
threaten the very foundation of our wonderful democracy.
Is The MTA A Scandal Waiting To Happen?
The last several daysí
news did not produce happy faces at the MTA.
Charges against the
authority and the damning reports by both State Comptroller Alan Hevesi
and City Comptroller William Thompson were the focus of multiple stories
in a variety of news media.
The facts are that the MTA
shifted several hundred million dollars from 2003 to 2004 to look poorer
this year and help their case for a fare increase. Yes, they did it, but
that is not a crime. This isnít Enron; nobody is accused of taking
money improperly. If the funds had not been shifted, the fare would
likely have had to be increased a year later, perhaps by a larger
The charges imply that the
fare hike was unnecessary, while the legitimate issue is not its
necessity, but its timing. But, as Mayor Bloomberg has
learned, the sooner you make budget cuts or raise taxes or fees, the
less onerous the eventual actions will be.
Was the MTA secretive about
its budget maneuvers? I think they were, but they were trying at
the same time to set the stage for a higher fare, and to reduce wage
expectations from the TWU.
So they pleaded poverty,
which they themselves had temporarily created.
Should public agencies do
that? I donít like it, but I canít object too seriously.
Why should the MTA be a
sitting duck for rapacious unions and professional straphangers?
There are sound reasons why the MTA
acted as it did, just as it was appropriate for the comptrollers to
react as they did. Both comptrollers are in a tough competitive position
with regard to advancement and when you can make page 1, or even B1, by
attacking a secretive agency which has just raised fares, hey, why not?
Having said that, one must in fairness
report that the MTA is no bargain either.
It is bloated in management, and replete
with dishonesty and waste in its construction practices. Some of
its engineers propose vast projects which benefit mainly contractors and
unions, rather than the riding public.
But the MTA does a lot of things right
Ė the trains and buses run safely and well, the employees have become
much more polite, the stations are better lit and more attractive. The
agency has many honest and dedicated employees, but there is a
disconnect somewhere in management, similar to the dichotomy and
aimlessness that plagued the former Board of Education before it was put
out of its misery.
Katherine Lapp, the MTAís
executive director, was brought in by Governor Pataki last year to
run the agency, replacing Mark Shaw, who is now the Cityís deputy
mayor for operations. She is a dedicated, competent and honest public
servant, who did a fine job as Criminal Justice Coordinator for both
Mayor Giuliani, and later for the Governor.
Her boss, real estate
developer Peter Kalikow, inherited a fortune in 1982 from his
father, H. J. Kalikow, a noted builder. The younger Kalikow was
appointed MTA board chairman by Governor Pataki in March 2001. Kalikow
is close to Pataki, but even closer to the man who picked Pataki from
the obscurity of a back seat in the State Senate to become the
Republican candidate for governor in 1994, former U.S. Senator Al
DíAmato, a man who now represents companies who have an interest in
matters involving the MTA.
It is time to look at the
MTA, not demagogically to attack the first fare increase in seven years
ó which actually is less than it appears to be because of discounts
for weekly and monthly riders. How about looking at the management
of the MTA, its capital plans and its construction costs, the size of
its staff at 131 Livingston Street . . . a large office building
comparable to its neighbor, 110 Livingston Street, which became a symbol
of waste and bureaucracy when it housed the Board of Education.
The biggest MTA scandal of
all ó still not fully exposed ó is the tale of 2 Broadway. We
begin by asking why a public agency requires prime real estate, with
spectacular views of New York harbor.
Why, if it does need that
exquisite location, didnít the State condemn the building and thus own
it free and clear, rather than entering into a multi-million dollar
extended lease from a well-connected landlord?
These question should be
part of a thorough inquiry into 2 Broadway, which I would describe as
the Tweed Courthouse of the 20th (or 21st) century. Perhaps it is
fitting that the Board of Education is now housed at the original Tweed
Courthouse, itself a symbol of waste, extravagance and graft.
Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner for 15 years and a Councilmember for
nine. He is founder and director of NYCivic, a good government group. He
can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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